Category Archives: Little things

Make-It Monday: Grape slicer

Here’s another trick that’s been making the rounds on all the Pinterest-clickbait sites. I hadn’t really had occasion to use it until the other day, when I was making another batch of cranberry sauce, but it works well, with a few caveats.

Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.
Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.

I add grapes to my cranberry sauce, because they taste good and give it a more assertive texture. The down side is that they have to be cut in half. Standing around cutting individual grapes in half is a pain, but I remembered a trick I’d seen for slicing cherry tomatoes and decided it probably would work just as well with grapes: Lay a handful of whatever small food you’re slicing on a cutting board, put a plastic lid on top of it, and press down gently while you run a knife just under the lip of the lid to slice through all of the grapes/tomatoes/whatever in one fell swoop.

Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.
Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.

In one of the pictures, you can see the edge of a big bread knife, which I’d thought might work well — most of the clickbait pictures I’d seen showed someone using a serrated blade considerably longer than the width of the lid — but in reality, big knives are unwieldy, and I’m klutzy, so I ended up sawing through the lid and making a mess of the grapes. I swapped the bread knife for a plain old steak knife, which was easier to handle and made a much neater cut without damaging the lid.

If you’re just slicing a handful of tomatoes for a salad, I wouldn’t bother getting out the lid, but if you have a large number of small fruits or vegetables to cut, it’s definitely worth rummaging around in the recycler for a plastic lid to speed up the process.

Emily

Customer service

Several months back, I pre-ordered a Judy Collins concert DVD called “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.” It was still in production at the time but was supposed to be ready in a matter of weeks.

I’m really good at ordering things and then forgetting about them, so I didn’t think about it again until we got a note saying there’d been a delay, and the DVD wouldn’t be ready for a few more weeks.

A few more weeks passed. And a few more. And then one morning about a month or so ago, Ron went out to get the mail, and there was a package from Wildflower Records.

“I think your DVD is here,” he said.

I opened the package. It wasn’t the DVD. It was a copy of Ms. Collins’ latest CD, accompanied by a note from her record label apologizing for the long delay, explaining the CD was a gift to make it up to fans for having to wait so long, and assuring us the project was still in the works and should be finished shortly.

The election happened. Leonard Cohen died. Leon Russell died. I forgot about the DVD again.

Ron went out to get the mail Saturday morning, and lo and behold, there was another package from Wildflower. Inside it was the DVD, autographed and accompanied by another note apologizing for the delay, this one signed by Judy Collins herself.

I wasn’t upset about the wait, but I was impressed by the customer service.

Things go wrong. You can’t always control that. But you can control how you handle the situation. Anybody who’s ever waited tables knows the best way to keep a screwup in the kitchen from costing you a tip (and the restaurant a customer) is to apologize, maybe bring the customer an extra basket of chips, and issue regular updates on the situation so he’s not left wondering what’s going on. If you can upsize the meal or throw in a free dessert, you do that, too. Most people are pretty forgiving if you apologize and try to make it up to them, especially if they know the situation is beyond your control.

Wildflower handled this situation about as well as they possibly could: After one delay, they sent a notice. After a second delay, they sent a gift. When the product finally became available, they added value with the autograph and enclosed a note signed by the artist.

That extra effort was a classy move that showed the label — and the artist — cared enough about the fans to try to compensate for the unforeseen delay. It made me smile, but it didn’t particularly surprise me, once I thought about it.

After all, Judy Collins used to wait tables before she became famous.

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: On procrastination

I will never understand why I procrastinate. Putting off a difficult task makes sense. Dreading a challenge makes sense. But altogether too often, I put off projects I really want to do, jobs that will make a big impact when they’re completed, or simple tasks that are likely to take half an hour or less.

Sometimes it’s inadvertent: I make a to-do list for my day off, prioritize it, and then get tired or run out of time and carry the lower-priority jobs over to the next week. If they don’t have deadlines, they end up at the bottom of the next week’s list, too, and the cycle starts all over.

After a few weeks of seeing the same unfinished job on my to-do list, I start to feel overwhelmed. The longer it’s on the list, the more Herculean it starts to look.

If there is an up side to this phenomenon, it’s the exquisite sense of relief I feel when I finally finish the project I’ve been delaying.

I had that feeling this weekend.

About 15 years ago, Ron commissioned a replica of one of the neon swallows that hang above the garages at the Blue Swallow Motel. When we moved here, I had to keep it in storage, because I didn’t have a good way to keep Walter from knocking it down.

Several months ago, I found a vinyl channel that would mount to the wall and keep the cord from dangling and turning my beautiful swallow into a cat toy. All I needed to do was paint it, install it, and hang up the sign.

As usual, one thing led to another, and the neon installation drifted to the bottom of the to-do list until Friday, when I finally got a hand free and forced myself to do the job.

Hello, old friend. I've missed you terribly.
Hello, old friend. I’ve missed you terribly.

It took longer to unpack the swallow than it did to install it.

This piece was the literal light of my life in Belleville, where I’d turn it on and look at its soft argon glow whenever I was depressed and needed a break but couldn’t quite manage a 14-hour road trip to Tucumcari. I denied myself access to that soothing blue light for three months longer than necessary, and I have no idea why.

Lighting the darkness.
Lighting the darkness.

If you’re feeling out of sorts, try turning your to-do list upside-down just long enough to complete that task you’ve been deferring for weeks. I suspect you’ll find the sense of relief and accomplishment that follows will lighten your mood as surely as a neon sign lights up a dark wall.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Outdoor living

In assessing how much space we need in our home, I find it valuable to consider three questions:

1. How much time do I spend indoors?
2. What am I doing there?
3. How much of that could be done outside?

The answers to those questions will help you determine what kind of square footage you need and how comfortable you’re likely to be in a small space. Most of the things I like to do in my spare time — read, write, surf the internet — takes up very little room and could be done just as easily outdoors when the weather is decent.

A small bench parked in the middle of a peppermint patch makes a nice spot for sipping coffee and relaxing next to the pond.
A small bench parked in the middle of a peppermint patch makes a nice spot for relaxing next to the pond.

On clear days when it’s not terribly hot and humid, I like to drink my coffee and eat my breakfast on the deck while the dogs play in the yard. On cool evenings when I have a little time off, I might sip a craft beer next to the pond, where I have a little concrete bench just big enough for one person to sit and think, and on drizzly days, the papasan chair parked at one end of our wide front porch makes an inviting place to curl up and read a book amid the scent of petrichor and the sound of the rain. A couple of years back, I added a little tile-topped plant stand that’s just big enough to hold a glass or a small plate, and next year, I’m planning to add a small table and chair to the other end of the porch to create a sort of outdoor office suitable for writing or working on other projects.

I’ve put a lot of time into customizing my yard, turning it into the kind of place where I like to hang out, and I imagine that will only increase when I get to New Mexico, where nothing indoors is ever going to be as pretty as anything outdoors, and where the weather is generally much more favorable for spending time outside.

If you’re trying to figure out how much space you really need, do yourself a favor and try spending more time outside. You may find you don’t need as much room as you thought — or you may find you can keep your climate-controlled space to a minimum and swap some of it for a transitional space that doesn’t have to be heated or cooled, such as a sunroom or conservatory with big windows you can open to let the breeze through on nice days.

Go play outside and see how it works for you.

Emily

Beer in the woods

exteriorweb
This might be the best place in Southern Illinois.

Tucked away at the end of a back road outside Ava, Illinois, is a microbrewery so good, in such an idyllic setting, it has managed to elevate my entire perception of the region where I grew up.

We made a new friend on our last visit.
We made a new friend on our last visit.

I first learned about Scratch Brewing Company last fall, when I attended a friend’s birthday party at Hangar 9 in Carbondale, and his sister bought me a hickory-based sour beer from Scratch that was easily the most glorious thing I’d ever tasted.

The taps are made of sticks. So is some of the beer. And it is AMAZING.
The taps are made of sticks. So is some of the beer. And it is AMAZING.

Ron and I finally made it out to Scratch’s tasting room this summer and proceeded to fall in love with the brewery and its surroundings.

The garden surrounding the brewery blends seamlessly into the woods.
The garden surrounding the brewery blends seamlessly into the woods.

The first thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they make everything from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, many of which they grow on-site or forage from the nearby forest. This practice leads to far more diverse and interesting flavors than you find at breweries that rely almost exclusively on hops to flavor their beer.

The menu changes constantly. Last Friday, we had this cheese platter with house-made crackers and a killer spreadable cheese from Bloomsdale, Missouri.
The menu changes constantly. Last Friday, we had this cheese platter with house-made crackers and a killer spreadable cheese from Bloomsdale, Missouri.

The second thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they aren’t afraid to experiment with less common types of beer. This means you’ll almost certainly find a sour or two on tap when you walk in, and they might have a rauchbier, a heavy or some other less-common variety available as well.

Everything on this menu is awesome. And odds are good none of it will be on the menu when you go, because the options change constantly.
Everything on this menu is awesome. And odds are good none of it will be on the menu when you go, because the options change constantly.

The brewers’ commitment to local ingredients extends to the yeasts they use: Instead of commercially produced yeasts, they use sourdough starter to ferment their beer and make their pizza crust rise. This not only guarantees a unique, hyperlocal flavor, but it allows me to drink Scratch products without triggering sinus headaches. (Apparently I’ve developed an allergy to certain strains of yeast in the past year or so, but I’ve been exposed to Southern Illinois’ indigenous yeasts for 41 years, so my immune system doesn’t freak out when it encounters them.)

This is what my dining room would look like most of the time if I didn't own a dehydrator.
This is what my dining room would look like most of the time if I didn’t own a dehydrator.

After three trips, however, I’ve found my favorite thing about Scratch might not be the excellent food or the world-class beer, but the surroundings. The tasting room is tucked into the woods, with a big, rambling herb garden out front and tiny lizards darting between the rocks in the retaining walls next to the walkway that leads into the building.

Here is most of the Piasa mural ...
Here is most of the Piasa mural …
... and here is the rest.
… and here is the rest.

Indoors, a beautifully rendered mural of a Piasa bird graces one wall, dried herbs hang from the rafters and fill jars lining another wall, and local artists’ influence can be seen everywhere.

This sort of reminds me of the golden years when Makanda Java carried bulk herbal tea in big jars.
This sort of reminds me of the golden years when Makanda Java carried bulk herbal tea in big jars.

It’s a remarkable place, and one that has the same effect on me as a trip to Dave Dardis’ not-so-secret garden in Makanda: It makes me more aware and more appreciative of what my home area has to offer. Between Scratch and a recent trip to Shawnee Trails in Carbondale, I’m just about ready to invest in a pair of trail shoes and let my next New Year’s resolution revolve around exploring the forests of Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri every chance I get.

Emily

Artwork by Ollie

Ollie made me a picture tonight at Mom and Dad’s:

handturkeyweb

Yes, I framed it. Of course I framed it. It’s a hand turkey. Made by a 3-year-old. The teal-colored wattles on the turkey actually started out as a teardrop, which made it look as if it had killed someone in prison, but I think Jamie convinced Ollie to modify it.

If you wouldn’t proudly display a toddler’s rendering of a turkey with a prison tattoo in your home, I’m not sure we can be friends.

munchkinsweb

Hazel had a birthday party today. She’s 5. Mom asked me to take a picture of all three kids together. I think she was hoping for something suitable for use on Christmas cards. This was the only one that didn’t have someone making a face or squirming or wandering off or giving bunny ears or some combination of the above. The boys have cake and Kool-Aid all over their faces, and Hazel is completely distracted, so obviously the party was a success.

Emily

Back to basics (and feeling awesome)

We closed on the House of the Lifted Lorax on Monday (congratulations to new owner Josh, who is way amped about the solar panels and the woodstove, and whose young niece is way amped about the Lorax mural on the side of the garage), which means we have just enough money in the bank to pay off our moving expenses and put a privacy fence around the backyard.

You can’t fully appreciate the value of a good fence until you’ve spent six months putting out a pair of hyperactive dogs on short cables umpteen times a day. Yeesh.

In addition to affording us the convenience of opening the back door and letting Song and Riggy take themselves out, this fence will free us up to establish a new beehive, adopt some chooks, install a pond, start a compost pile, and — if I’m feeling really ambitious — maybe set up a small warren of rabbits without interference from curious neighbors of either the two- or four-footed variety.

I put in an experimental, totally halfassed garden this spring and learned enough about my new yard to feel pretty confident taking my usual “Darwin Garden” approach: Coddle the tomatoes and leave everything else to natural selection. So far, I’ve determined that California poppies won’t do a damn thing; cucumbers, strawberries, arugula and most herbs will thrive with absolutely no attention; green beans should do well with minimal attention; and tomatoes should perform fairly well if we choose a variety that’s tolerant of partial shade and try to protect it from the local wildlife.

After meeting the new owner of the old house Monday and giving him some pointers on living the eco-hippie life to its fullest, I’m in full-on DIY mode, so this afternoon, I mixed up a batch of homemade laundry detergent and am currently trolling for dishwasher detergent recipes, since I’ve got plenty of washing soda and borax left over.

Also on the to-do list for this afternoon: Get a new set of shelves for the basement, join a gym, stock up on soup and chili ingredients, find the source of the smell coming from the kitchen drain, and work on the coupon books I’m making the kids for Christmas.

Life is good.

Emily